The Gorge Backcountry route is a 330-mile loop leaving Portland which encompasses lesser known vistas and lightly trafficked asphalt and dirt ribbons through lush forests, river canyons, and rocky escarpments both north and south of the mighty Columbia River.
For most, the colloquial impression of Oregon is exclusively one of deep green. Of lush temperate rain forests that tumble misty and cool from the ridge of the Cascades down to the Pacific Ocean. Of Portland, lumberjacks, beavers, and damp galleries of picturesque Douglas Firs bisected by surging rivers of ice cold snowmelt, a fertile empire suitable for an Ewok king.
What many don't realize is that Eastern Oregon, which comprises most of the state's land mass, is another world all together. There the deep greens of the coastal ranges dissolve into myriad shades of golds and browns, and both the vegetation and population become more sparse and of hardier varieties the further east one ventures. Eventually the high desert spills into Idaho and Nevada.
Harney County, larger than several New England states, comprises a huge swath of this beautiful and rugged landscape. Perpetually vast and remote, the area is, like most of the Western US, largely administered by the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Over the years those agencies, along with local ranchers and sportsmen, have carved out millions of miles of roads and trails that traverse the rugged countryside. Most are very primitive but generally intact, and provide the perfect setting for one of the most grueling single day back country races in the United States, the newly minted Skull 120/60.
We were thrilled to learn about this new event, and eagerly signed on as a sponsor along with Chris King Precision Components, Hammer Nutrition, Wilderness Trail Bikes, Gravel Cyclist magazine. We recruited a couple of racers from PDXTI to register for the inaugural event and late last month headed out for Burns to take in the spectacle.
A true hard man's challenge, the Skull did not disappoint. An instant classic, no part of the route is impossible but it is challenging for hours on end. The course is rough and rugged enough to make traditional road bikes with rim brakes a non-starter but fast and varied enough to make squishy mountain bikes equally inappropriate.
Of course that sweet spot in the middle -- all-road capability with great handling, all day comfort, and capacity for high volume tires -- is where our bikes shine. Our two PDXTI Ambassadors, Seth Patla and Andrew Coe, rode a Waypoint and an Omen respectively. As you might expect the bikes rode flawlessly, capable of tackling terrain that varied from smooth and fast tarmac to harrowing rock strewn descents, endless cattle guards, and stream crossings. Both racers reported having a fantastic time on the course, taking the opportunity to pause for documenting and taking in the scenery, and ultimately crossing the finish line arm-in-arm for a shared podium spot.